Berkshire County study tracks use of plea deals
Disparities based on race, lawyer type uncovered
AN UNPRECEDENTED look into how criminal cases get disposed of in Berkshire County reveals a trove of data, shedding a light on racial disparities, disparities based on lawyer type, and the impact of mandatory minimum sentences on plea deals, among other issues.
Berkshire District Attorney Andrea Harrington, who finishes her term in office next month, said she believes introducing this level of transparency is critical to “restoring faith in the system,” thereby enhancing public safety. “What I grapple with now is when we’re trying to build relationships with vulnerable communities so they report information, come to law enforcement,” Harrington said. “If they don’t trust us, those things don’t happen.”
Harrington’s office worked with researchers at Duke Law School’s Wilson Center for Science and Justice on a plea tracker project, in which prosecutors in her office filled out a form detailing specific information about every plea deal they reached between April 2021 and April 2022. The project encompassed 81 Superior Court cases and 1,012 District Court cases. The Durham, North Carolina district attorney’s office also participated in a similar effort. The goal of the project is to create a model that prosecutors across the country can use to better understand how their offices are using plea deals and whether justice is being applied evenly to all defendants.
One big question that has been raised throughout Massachusetts’ criminal justice system is whether there are racial disparities in sentencing and other practices. The results of this study were mixed.
Another disparity was found in the sentences defendants accepted as part of a plea deal. The report found that in Superior Court, Black defendants were more likely than White defendants to accept a sentence that was above or toward the top of the recommendations made by state sentencing guidelines based on their offense, giving them a longer sentence than a similarly situated White person who took a plea deal.
But looking at sentencing outcomes overall for people charged with crimes in Superior Court, White defendants, not Blacks, actually received the longest prison sentences.
The report also suggests some factors that could be behind the racial disparities. One is in the type of lawyer a defendant has. The data show that private attorneys were the most likely to secure a probation sentence for their client and the least likely to have clients accept a plea deal involving a prison sentence. Clients of public defenders had the highest proportion of prison sentences and the longest sentences. White defendants were much more likely than Blacks to hire a private lawyer.
Some of the difference in outcome based on lawyer type may be because public defenders accept the most difficult and serious cases. But Brandon Garrett, a law professor and faculty director for the Wilson Center for Science and Justice who co-wrote a report on the results of the project, said there is also an implication that racial disparities may stem partly from poverty and what type of lawyer a defendant can afford.
Another area where disparities could be introduced is in what aggravating and mitigating factors an attorney considers. Mitigating factors are things that could lead to lesser sentences, like a clean record, a defendant who is particularly young or old or has health problems, or cooperation with investigators. The data found that prosecutors on average consider fewer mitigating factors for Black defendants in District Court than for White defendants – but in Superior Court, more mitigating factors were considered for Blacks than for Whites.
Thes mitigating factors are also not considered consistently. For example, among District Court defendants with no criminal history, the lack of a record was considered a mitigating factor for one-third of Black defendants and 60 percent of White defendants.
Garrett said this type of analysis is unprecedented, since there tends to be no systematic way to track case outcomes in District Courts, where a high volume of lower-level cases are heard. “What they learned was that there were disparities and differences in outcomes that would have been hard to notice any other way,” Garrett said.
Harrington said she would like to see the Legislature take up the issue and reduce the numbers of mandatory minimum sentences so judges have greater discretion in sentencing. The current system puts the burden on prosecutors to reduce charges, which can be difficult politically. “For prosecutors to be reducing charges, we open ourselves to political attack,” Harrington said. Harrington just lost her reelection bid, and her opponent charged that she was too soft on crime.